Yesterday, writing at Poynter.org, Roy Peter Clark suggested that our current attitudes about plagiarism have conflated relatively minor or innocuous literary borrowings with serious thefts. One of the points he identified was the clamor about self-plagiarism. After quoting him, I'd like to add some observations.
Actually, he begins by quoting Judge Richard A. Posner's Little Book of Plagiarism: "Posner hits the target on this one: 'The temptation to lump distinct practices in with plagiarism should be resisted for the sake of clarity; "self-plagiarism," for example, should be recognized as a distinct practice and rarely an objectionable one.' All successful writers 're-purpose' their work for profit and influence, but they should always be forthright with potential publishers on whether the work is brand new or recycled."
I think of the practice of H.L. Mencken, who would write a short article for The Evening Sun, then revise and enlarge to magazine length, and finally repurpose it again for one of his books. (Bach and Handel regularly reworked material from one composition for another; were they self-plagiarists?)
Or look at this blog. It is impossible to write extensively on a subject without repeating ideas and language. When I repost a text in its entirety, the annual inveighing against holiday cliches, for example, I label it as such, but it wouldn't take much labor to discover that I have often echoed myself. So far, no one has raised a hue and cry.
Such repetitions, either conscious or unconscious, are familiar and innocuous in the work of newspaper columnists. The crossing of the ethical boundary comes, as Mr. Clark suggests, when the writer tries to fob off old work as new.
I trust that this is one of the topics likely to be discussed at the plagiarism summit next week at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in St. Louis. I'll be there. It would be grand if you were, too.